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Ojibwe tales that can only be told when there’s snow on the ground

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Winter is a time for storytelling in Ojibwe culture, a tradition that stems back many generations. (Adobe Stock)

“Why the Loon’s Eyes are Red” might not be the classic holiday story found in every bookstore come December, and “How the Raccoon Got His Mask” has never been turned into a Christmas TV special, but for Ojibwe families, these tales are as beloved a winter tradition as lefse and lutefisk are to local Scandinavians.

In the Ojibwe culture, storytelling is an ancient and important art. It’s how tales and teachings about the world are passed from generation to generation, from elder storytellers to eager children.

Tales are told all year long, but winter, especially, is a season of storytelling.

“There are traditional stories that can only be told while there is snow on the ground,” said Emily Buermann, who was born and raised on the White Earth Indian Reservation. “We have to wait all year for these sorts of stories.”

The tradition stems back many generations to when, “with each new season, the Ojibwe moved to different locations to harvest the resources from the land,” and in winter, they would move into large, birch bark wigwams and live on the food they had collected and preserved during the spring, summer and fall,” according to Carol Annette Kramer, an enrolled member of the White Earth Ojibwe and elder from the village of Pine Point.

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“The long, dark winter nights were perfect for telling stories around the fire,” Kramer said. “The stories were entertaining and helped pass the time, but they also taught valuable lessons in life.”

Traditionally shared orally, Ojibwe winter stories are geared to children and often involve woodland animals — such as the loon and raccoon stories already mentioned, for example, or “Why the Porcupine has Quills.” They answer the kinds of questions that kids tend to be curious about, like “Why Birch Bark has Stripes,” and also sometimes provide life lessons through characters like the Nanaboozhoo (who is known by other names, too, like Wenebojo), a spiritual teacher and trickster who shows up in many Ojibwe stories.

“There are a lot of stories that are out there,” said Mike Swan, a spiritual leader for the Pine Point community and the Native American cultural liaison for Detroit Lakes Public Schools. “Some are very long, some are very short. A lot of them are told during the wintertime, when there’s snow on the ground, but there are some stories we tell when there’s no snow on the ground, so you have to be careful which stories you tell when.”

Swan said the snow is significant because there are some tales “you don’t want to be telling when there are animals and spirits out there to hear you … When there’s snow on the ground, you know they’re hibernating. You know they’re sleeping at this time of year, so they can’t hear you.”

Creatures such as lizards and snakes, for example, often represent “bad things” in Ojibwe stories and, out of respect and privacy, the storytellers don’t want them overhearing that. “They’re trying to listen to you all the time,” Swan said of the spirits. “And you don’t tell your stories, or your dreams, to just anybody.”

Buermann, Swan and others have shared several Ojibwe winter stories with the Detroit Lakes Tribune and Park Rapids Enterprise. The tales will be published in the newspaper over the next few weeks, starting with “Why the Fawn has Spots,” as told Kramer below. Read the stories yourself or share them with friends, family and the children in your life.

Just be sure they’re told only when there’s snow on the ground.

'Why the Fawn has Spots'

When the Creator, GichiManido, created the animals, he walked among them and felt proud of all of them. The animals of the world are beautiful and precious in their own way.

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Each animal has something special and unique about it. The bear was given great strength, wolf was given sharp teeth and coyote was given quick wit. The beaver was given a flat tail, rabbit was given speed and birds were given the ability to fly.

The Creator was proud of the work he had done and the useful gifts he had given to each.

But soon, a doe approached him. She said, “You have given everyone survival gifts, and that is wonderful, but you have not given my fawn anything to protect her. She is small and afraid and many beings in the forest hunt her.”

“You have spoken the truth, mother doe,” said GichiManido. “Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone can learn from them and do better.”

So GichiManido thought for awhile, and then took white clay from the earth and painted spots on the fawn.

“Now, even when your baby is alone, she will blend into her surroundings, making her hard for predators to see.”

Then, GichiManido breathed on the fawn, taking away her scent. “Now, even when your baby is alone, no predators will be able to smell her.”

“Thank you, miigwetch,” said the mother doe, for she knew her precious baby would be protected.

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And ever since then, every fawn is born painted with white spots and has no scent until they grow enough to take care of themselves.

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